“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” follows on the heels of this summer’s blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but is no amusement park ride. Direction of this epic was wisely given to Peter Weir (“Truman Show,” “Picnic at Hanging Rock”) whose previous works have been masterful, otherworldly meditations on human superstition. Now, with the reins of no less than three major studios in his hands, he takes us into the cramped quarters of the 197 men aboard the H.M.S. Surprise. He examines their interactions and superstitions, and emerges with a “fighting naturalist,” a movie that has the scope of a blockbuster and the character work of an independent. In short, Weir has both created a new species and seized new territory for Mother Hollywood.
The first five minutes of the film are devoid of human utterance, but full of sound that gradually immerses the theater in the language of the ship itself before giving way to actual dialogue. Action commences immediately after, with an utterly realistic sea battle between the Surprise and an enemy Napoleonic ship, the Acheron. The images of the battle are appropriately jumbled, adequately conveying the frantic confusion of battle. The Surprise is much smaller than its rival and is forced to retreat into the fog. But Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) can’t let the enemy ship get away and spends the rest of the movie chasing this white whale around Cape Horn and into the Pacific.
After the initial battle scene there isn’t much action at all, leaving the characters in the center of things. In his most subtle performance yet, Russell Crowe tempers his “Gladiator” fire to become the British captain Jack Aubrey. Crowe’s Aubrey has a spark of mischief in his eyes and carries himself with grace, blending in perfectly with the early 1800s setting. More importantly, he portrays the authority and charisma necessary to garner the respect of his crew, who lovingly call him Lucky Jack. We are also introduced to the complex relationship between Aubrey and his best friend, the ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Maturin disagrees with Aubrey’s fanatical chase of the French ship but is willing to sacrifice his interests for their friendship. This relationship plays out slowly during the mid-section of the film and is beautifully mirrored in the frequent musical duets played onboard by Jack with his violin and Stephen with his cello.
Superstition and mysticism have not entirely left Weir’s sensibilities, as the death of a man in a storm is seen by the crew as the cause of many misfortunes. Weir does nothing to disprove this belief, and keeps us engrossed by studying its effect on the crew and Jack’s role in stifling the crew’s fears. To aid in his sea-faring mythology, Coleridge and Job come into play at various moments as well.
Russell Boyd’s (“Picnic at Hanging Rock”) photography is just as successful as Weir’s character work in bringing us onboard. There is not a straight shot in the entire film; the angle of each shot suggests Boyd can’t find his sea-legs. On top of this, the camera is always too close to the faces of the crew, giving it a tactile quality. Each of the shots is as much about what isn’t seen as what is. There is a masterful shot near the beginning, in the fog sequence, where a rope is left to dangle down from heaven, its connecting sail lost in the mist. Boyd isn’t afraid of darkness or poor lighting and orchestrates many shots that are delightful examples of ambiguity. Accompanying every visual are the sounds of the sea and ship which never cease and, in fact, almost drown out the actors. Sound is a prevalent theme of Weir’s other films and it continues to have an essential role in “Master and Commander.” Unfortunately the sub-par score doesn’t match the excellence of the sound. The only negative element in the entire movie, it seems almost entirely ripped off from “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Like a souffle, “Master and Commander” is gradually baked, patiently inflated to perfection. Although one false move, one misstep in pacing could destroy everything, under Weir’s masterful guidance that misstep never comes.